December 2006


Jacob Collins: Figures
Hirschl & Adler Modern Galleries, New York City
October 6 - November 4, 2006

Painting the Nude

by Louis Torres

Jacob Collins: Figures comprised thirteen paintings (mostly nudes) and four drawings. All but one of the works (Sheet Study 1) are pictured on the Hirschl & Adler website. See also Collins's website for images of two of the works--Young Woman in Bed [more] and Anna--as well as of more figures and other paintings. A full-color catalogue is available from Hirschl & Adler. (Readers are urged to view the paintings online before reading further.)

In its almost exclusive concentration on the nude figure, this was an audacious exhibition by a painter who has attained a mastery of the human form uncommon for his generation. Nine of the eleven nudes were made this year, presumably with this show in mind--which makes me wonder what Collins might have achieved if he had concentrated on fewer works.

One thing that struck me when I had a chance to view the exhibition a second time was that the large paintings differ from the small portraits in one crucial respect. In each, portions of anatomy in shadow are relatively unfinished, with a resulting loss of detail and the canvas texture subtly visible (discernible even in the online images of Male Nude and David). This makes such paintings seem more like studies, albeit highly accomplished ones, than fully realized works--yet they remain works of art, I hasten to add. Also relevant to that impression is the seeming uniformity of setting--dark background and prominent white bed sheets--which gives the sense that one is viewing studies of models posing in a studio, not representations of women and men in real-life contexts. Even if one were to view only one of these works in isolation, that impression would still hold.

More satisfying are the fully finished smaller portraits--in particular, Carolina, the finest piece in the show in my view. In this sensitively rendered half figure in profile, Collins achieves what is of greatest value in any portrait, clothed or nude--a sense of the inner life of the subject. Even his handling of the stray wisps of hair contributes to that effect. (Thomas Eakins was supreme in this respect and, among living painters, Andrew Wyeth.) The paintings of two reclining female nudes from 2004--Young Woman in Bed and Anna, both beautifully composed--are notable for their deep sense of repose.

Among the paintings I found least satisfying are those of nude couples--Anna and Arturo and, especially, Santiago and Sheila. Both works are lacking in psychological credibility. They seem staged. A cropped reproduction of the latter painting, which futher concentrates the viewer's attention on the vacant male figure, is the cover image for the exhibition catalogue. Carolina, to cite the most obvious example among several, would have better served the purpose.

It is a shame that none of the city's newspapers (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Observer, and the Village Voice) deigned to cover this noteworthy exhibition--with the sole exception of the New York Sun, which published a review just barely beneath contempt: see "Muddying the Waters of Classical Realism." No surprise though. Such work is usually shunned by critics. Even the Sun ignored sculptor Sabin Howard's monumental classical bronze, Hermes, for example, when it was exhibited at the Time Warner Center last year [see Notes & Comments, August 2005].